For the first post I figured the best place to start is to tell you about my current project. I started 2015 going into pre-production of a feature film. I set a max budget of $10k. I told everyone that it was no budget but I had saved up about 10k and I decided to just get started.
The previous year I had taken a local class on directing actors. It was taught by a local film maker and acting coach. He charged $100 a month for a 3 month course that he taught in his living room. I figured based on previous projects that I needed to get better performances from my actors so I put a lot of effort into learning everything I could about directing actors. My conclusion is there are no bad actors just bad casting. I decided to hire the teacher as my casting director and started the audition process.
The first thing I learned was that it’s pretty hard to find quality actors willing to work for no pay. It’s even tougher to find actors that can act and are the right actor for specific parts. At times I wished I had actors and then wrote parts for them specifically. I even contemplated rewriting the story to fit some of the actors I wanted to work with.
The script was an interesting process. I had a writing partner I was working with. I had pitched the idea of a ghost story caused by the murder of an innocent stranger that ended up buried in the walls of a garage. My writing partner had the idea of 11:34. We would have haunts every night at almost midnight. The reasoning is that was when the murder took place and that if you flipped the numbers upside down it spelled hE:ll.
Pretty good high concept project. We spend months developing the story. We wanted interesting characters. At times we probably got away from the scares and focused too much on character development. We rewrote the treatment and scene outline numerous times. He moved back home for the summer and then returned to go to school about an hour away. We still tried to meet hoping to finish the script over Christmas break when he would be in town. Things started out well we meet every day and started getting it on the page. The problem was the dialogue just wanted great and he eventually disappeared on me. A few months went by and I got the idea that I could turn the treatment into an ebook and put it up on kindle to see what kind of feedback the concept got. I set aside an hour everyday to write. I knocked out about 50 pages and showed it to my new writing partner. He took a look at it and was bored. It had the tone of a film not a book. I am not an avid reader. I prefer non-fiction and the last fiction story I read was the Green Mile by Steven King. If you are familiar with that it was a series of novelettes which was more to my liking.
The nice thing was that by writing the novel version of the story I really got to know my characters so I started writing the script myself. I came up with a few changes while doing the novel and one day I felt like writing so I started the script myself from the beginning. It had probably been two years I was involved with the story and I ended up knocking out a fairly decent script in about a week. I knew the story forwards and backwards. When I was finished I messaged my writing partner who I hadn’t talked to in ages to see if he would take a look. He had ignored my messages but the script got a response. He had some good ideas and was pretty impressed. So I embarked on a few rewrites. I always say writing is rewriting.
Back to pre-production. After the directing class ended one of my piers was filming a movie. She did a Seed and Spark campaign to raise the money and started principle photography. She was an interesting sharp women and I donated some of my equipment to her production. That’s the nice thing about Seed and Spark you can donate time or items instead of money. For film crowd funding it’s the best platform. You should check it out. I wish I had used it on my project to raise some money. As she got closer to finishing her project she lost some of her crew and messaged me to see if I could help on set a few days. It’s tough for my to turn down the opportunity to be on a film set. The problem is I’m a director/writer/producer and those departments was not what she needed. Anyway I helped with some grunt work and lighting. The thing that I didn’t realize at the time was that I made a few new friends who would later come on board to help me with my project.
During the casting process my casting director asked me if I needed some money for the film. He had a connection who he had told about the project who was very interested in getting involved. This guy had a few investors who wanted to invest in horror films, so I sent over the script. The guy contacted me and loved the story. We started having meetings about the production and put together a business plan that outlined out the budget for the investor. This is probably the main reason I didn’t do any crowd funding. After a few weeks he started to ask about how much coverage I got on the script. I had all my writing partners take a look at it. Keep in mind I have been writing scripts with different people for about 15 years so my guess is that I had about 10 eyes plus some various friends and family. The point here is that this is not real coverage. He wanted a professional script reader to take a look and attach that to the proposal to the investor. To make a long story short the one person he had coverage from found a lot of flaws with the story. The flaws I agree with but they are all by design because of budget issues. Ultimately we parted ways.
I had some money saved up and because I was doing planning based on a budget I ended up spending more than was prudent. Looking back at things I wish I used all the money for post production. I paid a few crew guys and gave the actors a small token amount of money. This was not money well spent. I should have worked with people who I didn’t have to pay because when you don’t pay rate you don’t get experienced professionals you end up giving people money who should be paying you for the opportunity of the experience they will gain. People have to pay rent so C’est la vie.
We did a script read and I opted to avoid rehearsals because I wanted fresh performances. Looking back at the process I wish we had spent 2 weeks doing some rehearsals. My last film I did rehearse and I felt it just confused the actors and that most of what we talked about they forgot when they got on set. I think it would have helped the performances to really run through the story a few times from start to finish. So they had a better sense of the characters development at different points in time during the story.
You know the saying what can go wrong will go wrong. Well the lead actress had her husband leave her after the first week of filming. The crew didn’t listen to my instruction about moving camera and basically did what they wanted. As the leader I should have fired people or replaced them. The problem with a feature is there are so many moving parts that when you have no budget you wear to many hats.
One of the main things we talked about in the directing class was building relationships with the cast. The idea is that the more comfortable they are the better they perform. The same thing goes for the crew. Also you have to be comfortable with them. I missed the boat on these things. I take full responsibility. Ultimately the director is the captain of the ship. I had basically a cast and crew of students. On one of my previous projects I referred to the actors as amateur actors and they didn’t go over well. What I meant was non-sag. In my opinion there is a big difference between sag and non-sag. The reason is simply the number of hours of experience. In order to get into the union you have to have a certain number of days of call sheets. This is the difference between students/amateurs and professionals. Another point of view individuals making a living in the business vs doing no budget non pay work. I myself do not make a living as a film maker so I too am an amateur so I might be too lenient in this regard because I don’t want to feel like hypocrite.
When I sat down with the editor I saw a lot of things that I specifically instructed them not to do. Another mistake I made was not insisting on watching the footage as we filmed. I was trying to watch the actors and focus on story and performance. I wish I had run the camera. For now on I’m running the camera. It’s silly to waste time and crew on that when the director is really the one who should be behind the camera. My editor said something to me that proves my point. He showed me a specific scene that he said was much easier to put together. He wanted to know if we had a different crew that day. We actually did. I ran the camera on that scene. Let me tell you what I did. I moved the camera 15% after each take. I did two takes then moved the camera. It’s really as simple as that. You get coverage to start. Then you punch in. Then you move the camera 15% in each direction. The reason is that when you move only 15% you do not need to do a new lighting setup. Remember that tip when you film. It’s not talked about much.
The last thing I want to say about the project is that you start with the story you envision. Then you end up with the story on the page. You make changes for budget. Then you film the movie and you get a different story. The post production edit affects story more based on what you got in the can. If you don’t start with an amazing story your going to have problems. At George Clooney famously said, “You start with an A script then during the process it goes down from there.”
Get a script and make it great. At the end of the day the story is the most important aspect of the process. If you want to succeed you need to figure out what a great story is and how to make it great.